BEAVERTON, Ore. — Olympics watchers all over the world were surprised by Mariel Zagunis' gold-medal victory in the women's fencing saber competition in Athens.

The “Catholic girl who made it big” was surprised, too.

“I think it was a huge surprise to everyone that I won, because I wasn't even supposed to be there,” Zagunis told the Register from Athens.

She initially didn't make the Olympic team, but was allowed to go to Athens when another qualifier bowed out.

“My faith in God really played an enormous role in my life, like never before, when I didn't make the team in March,” the 19-year-old Zagunis said. “It was one of those disappointments in life that causes you to really take a look at what's real and important and what matters.”

Zagunis will go down as the first gold medalist in the history of Olympic women's individual saber, which debuted this summer as an Olympic event. Her commanding 15-9 victory, over Xue Tan of China, marked the first time the United States has won a medal in the 80-year history of Olympic women's fencing.

“It feels great to be called a pioneer in the sporting world, and I hope that this will really help to boost the popularity of fencing in America,” Zagunis said.

“There's not a single person on this entire campus who isn't completely delighted about this,” said Ross Thomas, principal of Valley Catholic High. “The nuns who taught her in elementary school are talking about her constantly. She's their little girl who made it big.”

Thomas said the success of his now-famous alumna has already caused one new student to enroll at Valley High and numerous families to inquire.

“Mariel's success reflects well on this school,” Thomas said.

Zagunis was a popular student and athlete at Valley Catholic High School, having attended school on the same campus since kindergarten. Now, a year after graduation, she's the pride of her former elementary, junior high and high schools — all run by the Sisters of Saint Mary of Oregon.

Before she graduated from high school, Zagunis was recognized as such an accomplished fencer that she was offered a full scholarship to fence and study at Notre Dame. She accepted the scholarship but delayed entry for one year in order to train for the Olympics.

A shot to compete in the Olympics was merely a dream for Zagunis for most of the year that followed her high-school graduation. The dream was crushed the moment she lost her qualifying match by one point at the Olympic trials.

That's when she started praying.

For the next three months, Zagunis came to terms with the shattering of a dream she'd had since early childhood, when she learned about fencing by sword fighting with her brother, three years her senior, with sticks that had fallen from trees.

Then came the phone call. A series of events reassembled the shattered remains of her dream, just when she was resigned herself to staying home and watching Olympic fencing on late-night TV. Nigeria opted not to send a fencer to the Olympics, opening up a slot for another American. Zagunis was in as the last woman chosen for a five-member team.

Staying with her teammates in Athens, Zagunis missed the first week of school at Notre Dame. It shouldn't be a problem, her former principal said, because she's always been so far ahead of the pack academically.

“Mariel missed a lot of school while attending Valley Catholic, weeks on end at times, because she was always traveling to various fencing tournaments,” Thomas said. “But she's just such a terrific student with great enthusiasm for academics. Before missing school, she always got her work done ahead of time. It was really quite impressive. She'd come back, having won a tournament, and she'd act just like everyone else. She never had her nose in the air.”

Basking in his sister's newfound celebrity is Merrick, a sophomore at Valley Catholic. Her older brother, Martin, fences at Penn State.

“It really did start with the fact that my older brother liked to play with sticks and pretend they were swords,” Zagunis said. “One day, my mom signed him up for an actual fencing class. I was along, so I joined in, and before long I was enrolled in a fencing class.”

She also attributes much of her success to a 12-year Catholic education, which is why she chose Notre Dame from a list of schools willing to pay for her education if she'd join the fencing team.

“Going to a small Catholic school has helped me in every aspect of my life,” Zagunis said. “It helped because of the moral support of the teachers and staff and the rest of the students, who mostly come from good families.”

But will it sell cereal? Her face seems a natural for Wheaties boxes and school-lunch pails, and lucrative endorsement offers are sure to come her way in the wake of girl-power publicity that followed her victory. Fencing, an obscure sport in America? Not anymore, thanks to Zagunis.

“Naturally, I hope to do some endorsements, but it's complicated by the fact that I'll be participating in NCAA sports,” Zagunis said. “I'll have to work that out with Notre Dame and the NCAA.”

Faith in God and a solid family background seem to be a common theme to the success stories of American athletes at this year's Olympics. Many of them are Catholic, including:

• Courtney Kupets, who won the bronze on the uneven bars in gymnastics, was baptized at Holy Rosary Parish in Republic, Texas, where parishioners have been praying and cheering for her. Her grandmother Martha is a daily communicant at Holy Rosary and says all the women at her beauty shop have been cheering for Kupets.

• U.S. pitcher Lisa Fernandez, a graduate of St. Joseph High School, a Catholic school in Lakewood, Calif., is a star of the gold-medal winning U.S. women's softball team.

• Heather Ann O'Reilly is a leading member of the winning U.S. women's soccer team, which won the gold when it beat Brazil Aug. 26. She is a member of St. Bartholomew Parish in East Brunswick, N.J.

• Caesar Garcia Jr. turned his Olympic diving debut into a family affair, thanks in part to his family's parish — St. Thomas More in Baton Rouge, La. Garcia's parents traveled to Greece, along with all six of his siblings and three other family members. The trip cost more than $58,000. The family affair was made possible because St. Thomas More held a jambalaya fundraiser, the family's bank set up a fund, neighborhood children opened a lemonade stand, and members of the parish donated frequent-flier miles.

“What Catholic athletes get from their parishes and schools is the full support of family and friends, teachers, staff and fellow students,” said principal Ross Thomas. “Faith will always help people achieve more and get through life's tough terrain. Having coached sports myself, I know there's an advantage to athletes who have faith and faith-based communities.”

Wayne Laugesen is based in Boulder, Colorado. CNS contributed to this report.